Friday, February 20, 2015

Pass the Garum: Eating like the Ancients

Pass the Garum: Eating like the Ancients
In history we tend to look at the big things - the battles, the baddies, the plot and the intrigue - but sometimes it's the average and the everyday which impress most, giving us the tiniest of glimpses into the lives of the long dead.

We can listen to a song written some 1900 years ago (The Song of Seikilos for all interested), read the words of a lovestruck Pompeian ("I don't want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world." Pompeian graffiti), and perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this blog, we can eat what they ate.

Why 'Pass the Garum'?

Garum was a fermented fish sauce which the Romans loved to put in EVERYTHING. So, much as we might say 'pass the salt', a Roman might ask their toga-clad chum to 'pass the garum'.
Why food history?
I love food, and enjoy cooking.  I also love history - I did my degree in Ancient History, and now teach everything else.  So, why not combine the two and make something of it?  Besides that, I like the little extra insight it gives me into the people of the past.
What food will you work with?
I am going to start with primarily Roman cuisine - it was Roman food and Roman recipes which got me interested in the topic after all.  Once I run out of Roman recipes, I'll set sail and explore the rest of the ancient Mediterranean.
But, the Romans didn't have fan ovens!
One of the major challenges of recreating historical recipes is in staying true to the original.  There are several problems:
  1. The recipes are very, very vague!  They almost never include timings, and very rarely tell us how much to put in.
  2. When they DO give measurements they are in 'quadrantals' or 'sextarii' or some other equally extinct method of measurement.
  3. The ingredients can be difficult to come by (rue, spelt flour, cow brain, dormice) or just downright dangerous (lead salt anyone?)
  4. Equipment.  As much as I'd like to cook in a brick oven, it's just not possible.
I aim to stay as true to the original recipes as possible, capturing the essence of the food if nothing else.  Rather than using a blender, I have a trusty mortar and pestle to pound my ingredients.  Where measurements aren't given, I'll use ratios or just go by what feels right.  When a recipe calls for an unusual ingredient, I'll try to get as close to that as is possible.

And with that, it's off to the kitchen!  Get in touch and tell me what you like, what you don't, and what you'd want to see me do.  If you come across any particularly quirky recipes, don't hesitate to get in touch.

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